As we’ve looked at various aircraft, there’s a trend of “action-reaction” that I hope you’ve noticed. An airplane was produced (North American’s XB-70 Valkyrie), which prompted the Russians to produce an aircraft (the MiG-25 Foxbat). The Foxbat caused the U.S. military immense alarm, and that led to the incredible McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle. Cause and effect…action and reaction.
The subject of Today’s History Lesson is the “reaction” to the F-15, though not the Soviet response (which was the MiG-29 Fulcrum, a remarkable airplane that also deserves its day on these pages). Rather, this response actually came from the U.S. military itself.
The Vietnam War brought to light a real deficiency in military thinking with regards to airpower. Up until then, “interceptors” were the rage…planes with high straight-line speeds loaded with missiles for long-range, standoff attacks. High manueverability, low wing-loading, and dogfight capabilities were not deemed relevant anymore…until Air Force interceptors-turned-fighters (like the F-4 Phantom II and, to a lesser degree, Republic’s F-105 Thunderchief) started getting swatted from the Southeast Asian skies with alarming frequency in close-in engagements with true enemy fighters. All of a sudden, the “lightweight, gun-carrying fighter” concept from World War II suddenly looked a lot more enticing.
The military went to work, requesting proposals for a lightweight fighter design. And then the Soviet Foxbat was spotted, and the lightweight fighter was temporarily shelved in favor of the F-15 Eagle. But the idea of a true dogfighter was never forgotten. As the F-15 came to production, it became clear that, despite its awesome capabilities, its fly-away cost-per-plane was going to be very large. The idea of a smaller, less expensive compliment was raised and, suddenly, the lightweight fighter was back on the table.
Five companies submitted design proposals, and two (Northrop and General Dynamics) were selected by the Air Force as worthy of actual prototypes. The first “official” flight of the YF-16 was scheduled for (and performed) on February 2, 1974. But its first actual flight was back on January 20th, due to a malfunction. While accelerating the plane to near-takeoff speeds, oscillations forced the test pilot to lift off for a 6-minute unplanned flight in order to prevent damage.
In the end, Northrop’s proposal, the YF-17, finished second in the competition, but would later be modified and purchased by the Navy and Marine Corps as the F-18 Hornet. The winner of the competition, the YF-16, would be purchased by the Air Force and christened the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
We’ve covered very little of the plane’s actual capabilities, we’ve not spoken at all of its widespread use all over the world, nor have we mentioned the fact that, 35 years after its first flight, it’s still in production (though not for domestic purchase). But we’ll talk more about the F-16 in the future as anniversary dates arrive, because there’s a lot to talk about.
Recommended Reading: World Air Power Journal – Volume V focuses on the F-16 (as do a couple others). Now out of print and nearly impossible to find, this $19-per-quarterly-issue subscription was a tour-de-force. The finest periodical ever. I treasure my copies. Or, fly an F-16 yourself!!